How can one make sense of the alarming replication of malignant rulers in so many different countries over the past hundred years? Is it possible to include them all in one sweeping, cohesive vision, to marshal their heterogeneous manifestations inside the pages of a single book?
For Gabriel García Márquez, in his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), the solution was to create a composite character: a mythical, unnamed autocrat who has held sway, seemingly forever, over an invented Caribbean country akin to Costaguana in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. To portray him, García Márquez drew upon a motley cohort of Latin American caudillos: Juan Vicente Gómez (Venezuela), Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (Colombia), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Anastasio Somoza (Nicaragua), Manuel Estrada Cabrera (Guatemala), François and Jean-Claude Duvalier (Haiti), Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay), and Fulgencio Batista (Cuba), as well as Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who, having named himself head of state in 1939, was still tenaciously clinging to power and life during the writing of The Autumn of the Patriarch in the early 1970s.
What was a bane to Franco’s people served as a source of inspiration for García Márquez, who, when I visited him in Cataluña in March 1974, told me a joke. “Do you know why,” he asked me,
Franco rejected a turtle as a pet? Because turtles die after one hundred years and he didn’t want to go through the pain of mourning its passing away. He thinks of himself as immortal and perhaps he is. Not just because he refuses to die, but because he keeps resurrecting incessantly in other dictators.1
I understood what he meant. General Augusto Pinochet had, only six months earlier, overthrown the democratic government of Chile. Having just gone into exile, I watched my native land trapped in the cyclical nightmare of a repression that sadly recalled other brutal regimes of the recent and far past. Again the concentration camps, again the disappeared, again the torture and persecution of dissidents, again the destruction of democracy.
Pinochet was merely the latest, but not the last, addition to the monsters of our era. More despots and authoritarians would crop up around the world in the next decades, new demons in old guises, in new nations and with comparable strategies of control and mendacity. It is that viral recurrence that Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s engrossing Strongmen minutely examines, in an impressive attempt to summon a century of macho rulers under one intellectual roof.
This sprawling panorama is squeezed into three rather unwieldy periods. The era of fascist takeovers runs from 1919 and the ascent of Mussolini until Hitler’s defeat in 1945, with Franco as the third member of this atrocious trio, even if the way he rose to power (through a military uprising and a prolonged civil war) was different from the other two, and his reign overextended significantly into the next phase, the age of military coups (1950–1990). The main representatives here are Pinochet, Muammar Qaddafi, and Mobutu Sese Seko, along with minor figures like Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Mohamed Siad Barre. Again, not all fit slickly into the period assigned to them by the author (Mobutu lasts until 1997, Saddam until 2003, and Qaddafi until 2011). Finally, starting in 1990, we reach the current cycle of new authoritarians, who win elections and proceed to degrade the democracy that brought them to power. Ben-Ghiat primarily dissects Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump, with Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan given perfunctory assessments.2
Although Ben-Ghiat’s book does not mention any of the men (except for Franco) who served as models for the dictator of The Autumn of the Patriarch, that novel kept coming to mind as I read Strongmen. Animated by the same capacious, synthetic impulse that drove García Márquez, she seeks the unifying qualities underlying a patchwork of potentates. Rather than amalgamate them into one singular, eternal figure—this is copiously footnoted history, not fiction—she teases out an archetype of the strongman, almost a Platonic ideal, into which she tries to fit the disparate iterations of her ruthless leaders. Given that strongmen ascend to power and relinquish it (or not) under the most varied circumstances, she needs to bind them together with characteristics that define their commonality and essence—a series of “tools of rule.”
All of Ben-Ghiat’s main figures deploy nationalism both as a credo and as a means of mobilizing their followers, vowing
to make the country great again…. These leaders might invoke a lost imperial grandeur: the Spanish and Roman Empires for Franco and Mussolini, Imperial Russia and the Soviet Empire for Putin, and the Ottoman Empire for Erdoğan.
They also adopt sophisticated propaganda techniques and blatant falsehoods to demolish adversaries and bolster their own egos. Ben-Ghiat astutely notes, “Developed at the same time as the Hollywood star system, personality cults share an important quality of celebrity: the object of desire must seem accessible, but also be remote and untouchable.” This charisma is leveraged to project an aura of virility that is supposed to protect a helpless citizenry against lawlessness and an endangered nation against the invasive impurities of alien and internal enemies. Sexual stamina is often broadcast as proof of the macho’s strength, as attested to by Duterte (“I can love four women at the same time”) and Berlusconi (“If I sleep for three hours, I have the energy to make love for three hours after that”). Such posturing goes hand in hand with misogyny and the persecution of homosexuals.
Widespread corruption is another omnipresent attribute. Ben-Ghiat writes:
Putin treats the country he governs much like Mobutu treated Zaire, as an entity to be exploited for private gain. Putin poses as a nationalist defender against “globalists,” but uses global finance to launder and hide his money.
Just as fundamental is a willingness to inflict violence upon the populace at large and particularly on anyone voicing dissent or criticism:
For one hundred years, the strongman has guided the societies he rules through a transformation of culture and morals that legitimates harming others. While the satisfaction of following orders is part of the appeal for collaborators, authoritarian states also attract individuals who thrive in situations where inhibitions can be freed.
The result is a climate of fear and uncertainty belying the stability and authenticity thunderously proclaimed at feverish rallies and through pervasive channels of mass communication: “Who would the strongman past and present be without those crowds that form the raw material of his propaganda? His secret is that he needs them far more than they need him.”
If these patterns of behavior seem familiar, if they sound like a prefiguration of Donald Trump’s playbook, this is no coincidence. The specter of the forty-fifth president of the United States hovers over most incidents documented in Strongmen. Indeed, Ben-Ghiat’s exploration of this menagerie of megalomaniacs would not have existed in its current form if not for Trump’s alarming and corrosive ascendancy.3
Ben-Ghiat’s compulsion to apprehend the origins of Trump’s rise, popularity, and policies derives, undoubtedly, from the same anxiety and bafflement that have gripped so many of her fellow Americans (and non-Americans) since he descended the escalator in mid-2015 to announce he was running for president. It may have been compounded by her specialization in Italy’s turbulent twentieth century. Italy is the sole country included in all three of the periods—fascist takeovers, military coups (in its former colonies in Africa), new authoritarians—that she describes in Strongmen. She has studied Mussolini extensively, as well as the Italian imperial adventures in Libya and Somalia that eventually led to the reigns of Qaddafi and Siad Barre.4 She recognizes the deep roots in Italy’s ominous past of Berlusconi, the charlatan billionaire who took advantage of a democratic process that he despised and sabotaged.
No wonder that, when Trump surfaced, Ben-Ghiat felt a shock of recognition: certain themes, behaviors, and tactics that she had encountered over and over in the history of Italy seemed to be making a disquieting resurgence. Mussolini, Qaddafi, and Berlusconi provide a solid scaffold onto which she can add a proliferation of other strongmen with similar characteristics. Il Duce can be paired with Hitler, Qaddafi with Pinochet, Berlusconi with Putin, and so on, all of them unfurled in the service of indicting Trump.
By attempting to trace the multiple ways in which our former commander in chief compares to other repressive predators, Ben-Ghiat joins a distinguished group of intellectuals who have generated an immense body of commentary over the past five years. The titles of some of the most prominent books speak for themselves: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018), David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends (2018), Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (2017), Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning (2019), Theo Horesh’s The Fascism This Time (2020), Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works (2018). If fascism is highlighted so conspicuously in three of these books (and is an inescapable issue in the others), this is because a great deal of the debate about Trump has swirled around whether or not he is a fascist.
By early October 2016, a month before an election that he was largely expected to lose, the question was widespread enough to warrant an article in which Nicholas Clairmont scanned a slew of definitions: neofascist, proto-fascist, fascistic, with fascist tendencies, fascist-y, fascist-esque, and the tongue-in-cheek generalissimodious.5 He finally settled on Ur-Fascist, a word coined by Umberto Eco in a brilliant essay in these pages,6 as the best way to approach the enigma of Trump. Eco established fourteen traits to look for in contemporary emulators of Mussolini, all of which correspond quite precisely with the elements that Ben-Ghiat utilized twenty-five years later to weave together the transnational strands of her own strongmen tapestry.
At first glance, it is puzzling that, in a text so generous in its bibliography, footnotes, and quotes, she makes no mention of Eco’s essay. She cannot be unaware of such a major contribution from the preeminent Italian intellectual of our time. The only explanation must be that she deliberately does not wish to wade into the controversial debate over what the new authoritarians owe to fascism.7 How to respond, for instance, to Dylan Riley’s statement that “the question is not why our contemporary politics resembles those of the 1930s, but why it does not”?8 Or to Samuel Moyn’s contention that “comparing our current situation in America to fascism spares ourselves the trouble of analyzing what is really new about it”?9 Apparently she prefers to sidestep any discussion with those who see Trump either “as Hitler” or “behaving like Hitler” or “not Hitler but could become Hitler” or “might be a fascist without appearing to be fascist” or “not a fascist, but many of his supporters are,” which are just some of the possibilities scrutinized by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld in a masterful survey of commentators on the subject, some of whom argue that to fathom Trump one should consider ancient Greek tyrants, monarchist flatterers, or nativist American precedents.10
I assume Ben-Ghiat avoids participating in this battle of ideas in order not to bog down her riveting story and central points in a thicket of complications. Perhaps more crucially, she stays away from these questions because they would have forced her to defend her own handling of the very sort of analogies that, however suspect and unverifiable some of them may be, enhance the book’s effectiveness. Its unremitting juxtaposition of macho grifters is frequently stimulating, always chilling, never boring, and illuminating when she insists on pointing out how her villains turn masculinity into “a tool of political legitimacy.” Why would she wish to muddy the waters of her all-encompassing title, which succinctly conveys, without overintellectualizing, a way to easily identify would-be dictators as soon as they creep into view?
I appreciate Ben-Ghiat’s quest for what joins past and present, her desire to explain how yesterday’s perversions can come back to haunt us today and tomorrow. I know what it means to see the ghosts of former oppressors everywhere and have myself deployed Pinochet to skewer Trump.11 Once one has gone through the trauma of a dictatorship (or spent a lifetime investigating its manifestations), it is natural to raise the alarm as soon as the slightest portent of a parallel form of repression or discourse appears.
Yet if it would be irresponsible of us to ignore the commonalities, we must also be careful not to stretch the analogies to the point that we lose sight of the historical specificity and distinct sociological circumstances of each case. In the 1970s hundreds of female revolutionaries in South America were kidnapped by death squads and subsequently gave birth in secret detention centers. They were then murdered and their babies were stolen, presumably lost to their families forever. Many decades later, the United States government began systematically separating children from their undocumented parents at the border, a deplorably racist policy. But how is it helpful to set side by side these two criminal acts, as Ben-Ghiat does, except to outrage public opinion? It’s a laudable tactic, but one that serves no purpose of analysis or comprehension. A deportation machine, however morally repugnant, is not the same as a policy of extermination, no matter how much both stem from the same widespread complicity by agents of the state.
And yet events that transpired after this book’s publication in early November 2020 could well confirm its thesis that the repressive past is repeating itself. Surely historical precedents cannot be disregarded when Trump attempts to overturn an election he lost, when Michael Flynn floats the idea of declaring martial law to annul the results, and particularly when white supremacists mount an insurrectionary assault on the Capitol.
Watching such viciousness perpetrated on the oldest democracy in the world compels us to search for comparable offenses under earlier regimes, but to someone like me, who watched the military reduce to rubble the presidential palace in Santiago in 1973, what is most striking about the January 6 insurgency is not how similar it was to past onslaughts but how uniquely American and homegrown it seemed. We cannot turn a blind eye to the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt, the Pinochet memes,12 those torchlight blood-and-soil processions in Charlottesville that prefigured what was to come. But if we wallow unduly in the cesspool of the past, we may tend to misdiagnose the current crisis in all its complexity and run the risk of being unable to think our way toward an enduring solution.
If we are to defeat the rabid antidemocratic forces in our midst and prevent the rise of new Trumps, we must discover new concepts that take into account today’s distinctive features: the ubiquity of social media and how they can twist the truth; the overwhelming surveillance and data-collection apparatus that far surpasses anything Hitler or Mobutu could have dreamed about; the ways in which the increasing inequities and tensions of globalization create a sense of victimhood among vast constituencies. This intellectual task can be developed only in conjunction with a massive resistance movement, and Ben-Ghiat’s final chapters fitfully explore different ways in which citizens rebel against their oppressors, even leading, in some cases, to their downfall. Unfortunately, none of those whose reigns ended disastrously offer a clue to what will be Trump’s ultimate fate. For that, we need to turn to a twentieth-century ruler who fills every category (violence, corruption, propaganda, nationalism, the cult of virility) found in the book’s strongmen but who is not mentioned in it.
There are many authoritarian rulers missing in Ben-Ghiat’s survey. She excludes Communists like Mao, Stalin, Ceaușescu, and the three Kims, whose monstrous actions mirror those of others in this book. Nor is there any mention of Indonesia’s sinister Suharto or the Shah of Iran, though the CIA engineered coups that led to both of these men lording it over their lands, and the agency can also be linked to Pinochet’s military putsch in Chile.13 Ben-Ghiat might have left these figures out because they would not have added substantial new revelations about Trump or were not sufficiently extravagant, whereas the man I am thinking of, Juan Domingo Perón, would have contributed appreciably to Strongmen.
An avid admirer of Franco, with lasting ties (much deeper than Pinochet’s) to the Caudillo, Perón provides an exceptional bridge to a fascistic past, complete with Nazi refugees, mass rallies, macho bravado, extreme nationalism and anticommunism, and a populist agenda that did not disturb the foundations of capitalism in his country. And as someone who used elections to take and remain in power (from 1946 to 1952 and again from 1973 to 1974), he anticipates our current moment of new authoritarianism.
Valuable as such insights about the past and present are, they pale in comparison to what Perón reveals about Trump’s possible future. After being ousted as president, Perón sought refuge in Madrid (Franco was an amiable host), and instead of quietly retiring, he kept determining from afar the destiny of his native land by keeping a hypnotic hold on millions of his working-class followers, before triumphantly returning to govern Argentina at the age of seventy-eight. He is a chilling model for Trump to emulate as he ponders his next moves in his Florida exile or even from abroad.14
Perón would have quite a bit to teach Trump, though a meeting could occur only in some wildly inventive novel where other banished leaders of their ilk, Mobutu and Reza Pahlavi, Idi Amin and Siad Barre, Joaquín Balaguer and Anastasio Somoza, Ferdinand Marcos and Manuel Odría—or their ghosts—might be invited to join them. García Márquez has already imagined such a place for deposed leaders in The Autumn of the Patriarch, conjuring up a derelict mansion on a cliff to which they flee after they have been overthrown, spending their last days reminiscing about bygone glories and erotic conquests, and peering out to sea as they await news from the homelands that have repudiated them.
It is a consoling fantasy. García Márquez is dismissive of these pathetic, backward-looking creatures, remnants of a contemptible, ostensibly receding era, nostalgically attached to yesteryear’s brutalities, irrelevant to the world we live in. Yet in the hard reality of history that Ben-Ghiat has described with such diligence, her strongmen—or whatever you wish to call them—are all too real and contemporary, certain that they represent the future and not the past. Trump may have lost his bid to remain in power, but many of his fellow travelers still control their captive nations, and others lurk semi-anonymously in the shadows, awaiting their chance.
As for Trump’s future, it could be that, like Perón, he makes a comeback. Or, also like Perón, who still holds his country in thrall almost fifty years after his death, Trump could continue to influence our vulnerable and imperiled land. Or perhaps a worse and more dangerous incarnation of his persona and policies is brewing right now. Whatever the coming years bring, we should not forget Trump’s terse last words as president, before being flown off to his Elba-in-Florida: “We’ll be back in some form.”
I wrote about this visit previously in “My Memories of Gabriel García Márquez,” The Nation, May 26, 2014. ↩
For a probing picture of Modi and Erdoğan, see Basharat Peer, A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of the Strongmen (Columbia Global Reports, 2017). For Bolsonaro, see Marcos Nobre, Ponto-Final: A guerra de Bolsonaro contra a democracia (São Paulo: Todavía, 2020). For Orbán, see Paul Lendvai, Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (Hurst, 2017); reviewed in these pages by Jan-Werner Müller, April 5, 2018. ↩
See her “Co-opt & Corrupt: How Trump Bent and Broke the GOP,” nybooks.com, August 12, 2020. ↩
See her books Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922–1945 (University of California Press, 2001) and Italian Colonialism, edited with Mia Fuller (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). ↩
“Is Trump an Ur-Fascist?,” The Atlantic, October 5, 2016. ↩
In an interview quoted in an e-mail to New York Review subscribers about “Co-opt & Corrupt,” she briefly elucidates a reason: “I don’t call Trump a fascist because I think that’s too restrictive a word.” ↩
“What Is Trump?,” New Left Review, No. 114 (November–December 2018). ↩
“The Trouble with Comparisons,” nybooks.com, May 19, 2020. ↩
“An American Führer? Nazi Analogies and the Struggle to Explain Donald Trump,” Central European History, Vol. 52, No. 4 (December 4, 2019). ↩
See, among other op-eds, my “Trump Isn’t a Dictator. But He Has a Dictator’s Sense of Impunity,” The Washington Post, February 5, 2020; and “I Thought Democracy in Chile Was Safe. Now I See America Falling into the Same Trap,” The Guardian, September 11, 2018. ↩
See Christopher Ketcham, “What the Far-Right Fascination with Pinochet’s Death Squads Should Tell Us,” The Intercept, February 4, 2021. ↩
During the months preceding the 1973 coup in Chile, blood-red graffiti began to appear on many walls: “Jakarta ya viene!” (Jakarta is coming!), predicting that the country would soon suffer the massacres that had stained Indonesia six years earlier. And the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran was a dress rehearsal for the coup against Salvador Allende twenty years later, as a recently released documentary, Coup 53, proves yet again. ↩
This may seem far-fetched, but for further consideration of the possibility, see my “Trump’s Dilemma: Who Will Give Him Asylum Now?,” The Nation, December 8, 2020. ↩